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'He Was My World': We Spoke To Families and Survivors of Pakistan's University Massacre

VICE News visited Charsadda, northwestern Pakistan, where gunmen stormed a university on Wednesday and killed at least 20 people.

by Mohammad Zubair Khan and Sally Hayden
Jan 22 2016, 1:15pm

Photo via family of Haidar Ali

Haidar Ali came from a poor family and humble beginnings. An English student at Pakistan's Bacha Khan University, he had just passed his fifth semester. He was also recently married, with a newborn baby boy.

Haidar was just one of 20 victims of brutal attack in Charsadda, northwestern Pakistan, on Wednesday, when four gunmen entered Bacha Khan's campus and began firing indiscriminately. A commander of the Pakistani Taliban — Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistani (TTP) — has claimed responsibility, though the group's official spokesman has denied they were behind the attack.

VICE News drove to a rural area 40 minutes outside Charsadda to meet Haidar's father, an impoverished farmer who said Haidar was his world. 

"My whole family had a lot hopes and expectations [tied to] Haidar," said Mumtaz ur Rehma. "That once he finished his education he would be the breadwinner for the whole family. In this hope I worked day and night and provide all possible resources to Haidar Ali so he could study."

"Now see what has happened to me," he said, in tears. "Every day his mother and I sent him to university with great hopes but this university gave us the dead body of my son."

He implored the government to do something about Pakistan's rampant insecurity. Taliban gunmen massacred 134 children at a military-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar in 2014, and following Wednesday's attack commander Umar Mansoor vowed to target more schools.

Related: Pakistani Taliban Commander Warns More Schools Will Be Targeted

"I am asking rulers, the army, the police — what are you are doing?" said ur Rehma. "Terrorists are killing children in daylight and you are helpless. If you are not able to give protection then we will pick up guns on our own and eliminate terrorists."

Haidar's older brother Maqbool Ali is also still fixated on the events of Wednesday, slowly piecing together what happened. "When the terrorists attacked the university I called Haidar," he recalled. The phone was answered, "but instead of hearing his voice I was listening to blasts and firing. And at every horrible noise I felt myself get lower."

Maqbool described Haidar as a bright student, and said he had chosen to study English because it would make more opportunities available for him in the future. In the meantime, Haidar had been helping his father with the farm and tutoring part time, to cover his university expenses.

Haidar Ali's family home, where people have gathered to offer their condolences. (Photo by Mohammad Zubair Khan/VICE News)

The death toll, though less than that of the Peshawar massacre, has caused outcry in the country, where citizens accuse the government of failing to crack down on terrorism and terrorist groups.

An editorial in English-language daily newspaper the News on Thursday condemned the "impunity that some extremist groups have," while asking: "How many more chemistry teachers are to die saving their students? How many children are we to sacrifice before history and politics teach us which way salvation lies?"

Meanwhile, three days of mourning are being observed.

A picture of sociology student Mohammad Shehzad (Photo by Mohammad Zubair Khan/VICE News)

Mohammed Shezad, a a sociology student, was another of the victims.  When VICE News visited his home in the Mardan district, close to Charsadda, dozens of people were paying their condolences — all in deep shock.

Shehzad lived with his father, Fazal Subhan, who is a businessman. Subhan said Mohammad had called him from university on Wednesday to say that an attack was happening but he was safe. "I asked him to try to leave, and he said there was no need to worry about it and he would manage," he said. "After that the call was over."

Frantic, Subhan called back again after a few minutes, "but his phone went unanswered, which made me worry." So Subhan rushed straight to the university. "When I reached it a security man told me the operation was over and the injured people and dead bodies were in hospital," he said. "When I reached the hospital I met my son-in-law, who was silent. By that I understood that my son was no more."

 Mohammad Shehzad father offers condolences. (Photo by Mohammad Zubair Khan/VICE News)

Shehzad's brother-in-law Ali Noman said Shehzad had texted him during the several hours that the attack lasted, saying terrorists had opened fire in his room and killed his two roommates, "but I am safe." A second text said the gunmen had returned and shot him. "I am injured and bleeding," it read.

A third and last text said he could hear firing and blasts outside. "If I do not get rescued then it will be difficult for me to survive."

Noman also tried to phone the student — his call went unanswered. He headed to Charsadda hospital where Shehzad's classmate told him the sociology student had died.

Shehzad's sister did not want to be named, but told VICE News: "My brother loved to wear neat and clean clothes but yesterday there was blood all over them. The terrorists who killed my brother do not even deserve to be called animals, they are worse."

Injured security guard Mohammad Iqbal in Charsadda hospital. (Photo by Mohammad Zubair Khan/VICE News)

Bacha Khan University teaches more than 3,000 students. On the day of the attack it was hosting an additional 600 visitors on Wednesday for a poetry recital to remember Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a popular ethnic Pashtun independence activist and leader after whom the university was named. Of the students and staff members who did manage to escape, some are marked by scars that will stay with them for life.

Injured computer science student Tasbeeh Ullah survived by leaping from a third story window. "When I heard firing I was in my department," he told VICE News from his bed in Charsadda hospital. "I went to the administration block where I saw security firing… and terrorists throwing hand grenades. Suddenly a terrorist opened fire on me and I was narrowly saved from this attack. I ran upstairs, but when I reached the third floor I saw the terrorist behind me." So he jumped, before passing out upon impact with the ground.

Doctors in the hospital told VICE News that Ullah had fractures in his legs and was in need of a major operation.

Related: Pakistani Taliban Commander Warns More Schools Will Be Targeted

Security guard Mohammad Iqbal, was also in the hospital receiving treatment for gunshot wounds. "I was on duty in the car park when suddenly I heard firing noises," he said. The fog stopped him from seeing his attackers face, though he made out a foot. "I also fired on him but missed, and his shots hit me on my left hand." Iqbal then passed out from blood loss. 

The last of those killed was buried on Thursday.

Follow Mohammad Zubair Khan on Twitter: @HazaraZubair

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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